For the last several decades the over-riding mantra across western governments has been that what is important above all else is economic growth. Initially this made sense – the growth lifted people out of poverty, improved lifestyles and so on. But now is the time to question whether it should still be our main aim and guiding light.
The first and most prominent question for growth now has to be: is it sustainable? The world’s resources are currently consumed at an alarming rate, with the imminent prospect of Peak Oil, Peak Metal and Water Wars. Climate Change is upon us, and our uptake of green technologies is too slow. But even if we do suddenly take to electric cars, powered from a national grid of nuclear fusion, wave power and desert solar, our cars and phones will be using too many rare metals and there may not be enough water for 9+ billion people to all eat as much meat as they’d like.
There has long been a tension between current residents of countries and any influx of immigrants, particularly if the “locals” consider their country over-crowded – as most countries do now. But to governments, immigrants are great for the economy and economic growth. They tend to be highly motivated, their childhood and often their education has already been paid for; they are instant taxpayers, who instantly grow your economy. A high birthrate for your country isn’t quite as good as immigration, but it still ultimately helps your goal of Growth, Growth, Growth.
But the world is already overpopulated and under-resourced, we don’t need our over-arching goal to encourage more births.
The less radical solution to this is to have world economies measured in GDP/capita, rather than straight GDP. This probably wouldn’t fly with most politicians. For all China and India’s recent impressive growth they’d still be well down the rankings. In many western countries the growth in population (often through immigration) often helps governments cover a lack of progress in other areas. Perhaps in Japan, Russia and Italy – with their populations set to fall in the near future – the measure might catch on.
The more radical solution is to realise that growth is no longer doing anything for us. On average we earn 6 times as much as our grandparents, but we’re working longer for that money – every week, and for more years. They had more time to enjoy life; we have more possessions – if only we had the time to use them.
Furthermore the increase in wealth no longer makes us any happier or healthier. As the Spirit Level shows, once countries reach a certain level of wealth (about $US15000 – and New Zealand is comfortably above that) any extra money doesn’t improve any of a wide range of social measures of well-being. What does improve our mental and physical health, our levels of trust and our social mobility, and also lowers our levels of crime and punishment, drug abuse etc is Equality.
Equality is much more sustainable than a race to the most possessions. It doesn’t create perverse population incentives and it doesn’t demand ever more of the world’s over-utilised resources. And it will improve all our lives – the rich as well as the poor. Perhaps we should embrace Equality as our new over-arching goal.
* I’m thinking of doing a digested read of the Spirit Level series if people are interested. I’d recommend people read it themselves, but I’d rather get the message out and I can’t buy y’all a copy or the time to read it…